Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Balance airport safety with economics

The small but dedicated group of men and women entrusted with recommending where to build a new airport ultimately must weigh a critical factor.

No matter how suitable all other elements of a new site, if it doesn't meet the needs of the airlines and passengers that would use it, it would be a white elephant from the get-go—a drain on the valley's economy.

The five-member Friedman Memorial Airport Authority happily has eliminated any prolonged suspense about which of 16 candidate sites might be the best suited for a new airport.

Five sites, each remote from populated areas and far south and east from the present airport, have survived to be intensely examined for operational suitability, accessibility and appropriate protections for the environment and wildlife, among other criteria.

Now the tough part: Are the sites situated close enough to the Wood River Valley to continue attracting airline service that is the lifeline of the resort area? Will the sites enhance or hurt the area's economy?

The economic impacts of a new airport are as vital as safety. A new airport could be the safest place in the world to take off or land, but if it is inconvenient for visitors, no one will fly there. Horizon and SkyWest airlines representatives, Sun Valley Company and others whose interests depend on reliable air service repeatedly emphasize this point.

Studies over the years have concluded that upwards of three-fourths of the area's tourism relies on air service. It's no coincidence that Friedman Memorial Airport's location on the edge of downtown Hailey has provided airlines and their passengers with an ideal destination setting.

Emerging as perhaps the most suitable location, Site No. 13 east of Fairfield along U.S. Highway 20, is less than 45 minutes from Ketchum when traffic conditions are good—on the cusp of what is the maximum desirable distance.

It would be drive-time closer if—and this is a big "if"—a road were cut through the mountains from Hailey to the site. Such a road would add millions to the costs of an airport that might be a $100 million project in itself. But the road would make its location more acceptable.

An adequate ground transportation corridor is essential for any airport to carry passengers, cargo, mail, and airport support personnel and will be a key element in where a new airport site is designated.

As Friedman Airport manager Rick Baird and the airport's consultants have candidly observed several times, perhaps the remaining sites may not measure up to the needs and expectations of the community.

In which case, a new set of alternatives must be developed and examined.

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